And Now For Something Completely Different

My daughter has been very slow to start talking, which is both worrying and deeply frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we need to make an appointment to take her to a specialist to try to find out what the problem is.

And that makes me think about language barriers. My little ninja (she’s seriously stealthy and agile for a two-year-old) woke up in the middle of the night last night and had shrieking hysterics when put back into bed… and I don’t know why. She can’t tell me. I don’t know if she had a scary nightmare, or if she had a stomach ache, or if she’s just upset because she has the flu. I can try assorted things – drink of milk, bottle of chilled water, cuddles, songs, letting her curl up in our bed instead of her own – but they’re semi-informed guesses at best.

Language differences are often handwaved in fiction. Universal translators are a science-fiction staple, ‘common’ or ‘trade-talk’ ditto in fantasy. Magic can ease a linguistic barrier, or maybe a babelfish in the ear.

Which bugs me, a little. Language is the medium in which novels communicate and yet they hand-wave and simplify it to the point of  non-existence. I really think characters can handle a little in the way of basic linguistic inconvenience. It also ignores the fact that even now, let alone in the days before pocket dictionaries, people often know more than one language, especially if they’re likely to need to. Lady Jane Grey famously spoke and wrote French, Greek, Italian and Latin fluently, in addition to English, and she was still in her teens when she died. There is no reason why characters in high fantasy shouldn’t speak multiple languages… even a Farmboy Protagonist may have picked up a few words here and there, if he happens to have grown up near a trade-route. In fact, the idea that everyone in a fantasy world speaks the same language is orders of magnitude less likely than Farmboy Protagonist happening to have happened on a few words of Exotic Foreign.

I’ll concede that in science fiction, this is harder. A mechanical translator is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that not only are there whole worlds full of new languages that possibly haven’t been encountered before, but that a humanoid vocalizing mechanism probably isn’t going to be up to producing all of them. Even so, it would be nice to at least see some token difficulties.

One of my favourite depictions of this is in the beginning of the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which the poet Ahmed ibn Fadlan learns to speak Norse over the course of a journey, by listening to the men around him talking. Words slowly become clear, and eventually he’s able to communicate, though his use of grammar is noticeably different, which I thought was a nice touch. (Yes, I know it’s a terribly cheesy movie. I like it anyway.) David Weber in his War God series does acknowledge the existence of different languages, and gets around the problem tidily enough by having his protagonist being a somewhat well-educated noble, the son of a prince, who like Jane Grey has learned multiple languages as a matter of course. He doesn’t speak them all perfectly, but he can get by.

In science fiction, the best example that leaps to mind is a very old book called ‘The Dancing Meteorite’, by Anne Mason. I loved this book when I was younger, and as an adult I hunted down a second-hand copy so I could have it forever. It features a young ‘e-comm’ xenolinguist, who runs into trouble several times not only because learning multiple alien languages – some of which are nigh-impossible for a human to produce the sounds for – takes up all her time, isolating her from her peers, but because it takes up all her study time. She doesn’t have enough scientific grounding to know that a meteorite shouldn’t change direction spontaneously, let alone all the other information her peers think is elementary. Anne Mason showed very clearly what a huge barrier language can be, including having Kira explaining to the members of her exploratory team when they protest that handling languages is her job, not theirs, that they will all be in different parts of the alien ship they hope to travel on, and that she will only be able to translate for one of them at a time, and in addition is required to do her own work as well as acting as the diplomat for the team and suck it up and learn your shit, princesses. Not that she says that, but oh, it would have been delightful if she had.

I know it’s tempting to insert a convenient lingua franca into fiction, so that you don’t have to waste time on explanations or translations, but I do think it’s something that should be given real thought, not just brushed off. Language barriers are so utterly frustrating, they make a wonderful source of tension in a plot – and one that doesn’t require willful misunderstandings or being Stupid-In-Service-To-The-Plot. I would love to see a fantasy novel in which the group of travellers Brought Together By Fate don’t all speak the same language, and have to rely on those members who know both or all three languages to relay information. The possibilities for complications just abound! And when The Group Gets Separated, as it traditionally does, well, then things could get really interesting.

Does that story already exist? If it does, please let me know!

EDIT: If anyone is wondering, the trouble with the Tiny Ninja was an ear infection. We have antibiotics for it, and she’s much happier already.


2013-10: The Alchemist Of Souls by Anne Lyle

Book two of the 2013 ten – ten books I haven’t read before, by authors I haven’t read before!

Alchemist of Souls was good…. but.

There’s nothing like damning with faint praise, I know. But that was definitely the feeling I came away with. “It was good, but…”

The prose was good, but the pacing was off.

The characters were likeable and engaging, but their motivations often weren’t really explained.

The idea was first-rate, but the climax was disappointing.

The title was good, but was only barely relevant to the story.

The history was good, but the Plot McGuffin was huge and unwieldy.

Honestly, I enjoyed reading it at the time. I liked the characters, the portrayal of Elizabethan England was realistic and engaging, and I do always enjoy alternate histories. But when I finished the book, I found myself feeling kind of unsatisfied. The plot wasn’t resolved well, and too much of it had just leaped up out of nowhere in the last third of the book. I’m sure a lot of people would read and love this book – I like to see the gun on the wall in act one, before it gets used in act three, but people who don’t mind the author holding back would no doubt enjoy the twist.

Nevertheless, the prose and characters were excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read more by Ms Lyle.

Rainy Days and Rereading

This post is late, and I apologize. It’s rainy today, and entertaining a hyperactive toddler who’s cooped up in a small house takes a lot of energy. My love for Playschool is being seriously strained, as is my capacity for imitating the dance-moves on Yo Gabba Gabba.

It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect day for curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a book, preferably an old favourite. Something you know is going to be good, with no nasty surprises and the comfort of revisiting old friends. It’s the kind of day that cries out for a cosy reading-nook and a teapot with a cosy.

I have neither, but I am rereading an old favourite. Having just acquired the latest Harry Dresden, I’ve been warming up by reading over the whole series. I’m reading ‘Ghost Story’ now, and my heartstrings are being extensively wrung. I like it, though. I love the characters, and I’m glad to see them again. Jim Butcher is one of the authors I can read over and over again – his continuity isn’t always perfect, but I love his prose, his snarky dialogue, and his characters.

My ultimate re-read author is Jane Austen. Her elegant prose is a joy to read every time, and I love the characters – even Fanny Price, who many readers loathe. But I’m shy and anxious myself, so that helps me identify with her. There are some I just want to slap – I am looking at you, Miss Crawford – but most of her characters I am delighted to meet again.

Jules Verne is very hit or miss for me. I reread ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’ over and over again, but spent most of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ wanting to smack Harry across the ear until he stopped freaking whining. I couldn’t even finish ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ because it’s just page after page after page of fish and I just got so bored. How can being kidnapped aboard a giant steampunky submarine be so dull?

Among more modern works, I can always reread Patricia Briggs’ ‘Mercy Thompson’ series – most of Briggs’ work is, for me, eminently rereadable. Tamora Pierce is even more so – her ‘In The Hand of the Goddess‘ was the first fantasy novel I read with a heroine instead of a hero, when I was very young, and I have adored her work ever since. The Tortall series’ and the Circle books I will happily read over and over, even though I’m much older now than most of her protagonists.

What books can you guys read and reread? What favourites do you keep coming back to on rainy days?

What’s In A Name?

As previously mentioned, I have a terrible memory. It’s particularly weak on the subject of names. This can be a real problem for a reader. Nobody with a good memory can understand the sheer embarrassment of walking into a book-shop, realizing that your memory has failed you utterly, and having to ask for help.

“Uhm… excuse me?”


“I’m looking for a book, it’s a sequel to a book I have and I really liked, but I don’t remember the name.”

“Sure, what was the author’s name?”

“Uh, I don’t remember.”

“Okay, what was the name of the first book?”

“… I’m really sorry, but I don’t remember that either.”

“Oooookay. Do you remember anything about the book?”

“It was about a detective in a steampunk version of Victorian England and he had a lady assistant named Veronica and the cover had a dirigible and lots of shiny gold bits. I’d know it if I saw it.”

“(super bookseller tappity-taps for a minute at the computer) Oh! You’re looking for The Osiris Ritual by George Mann. I’ll show you where it is.”

She was very nice and didn’t laugh at me even once, but I was utterly mortified even as I hurried out of Dymocks clutching the precise book I’d been looking for. And in the spirit of honesty, to tell this story I had to google ‘steampunk victorian detective’ and look around for a familiar cover, because I still don’t remember the author’s name or the titles! But I found out there’s a new one out, so go me. (And they’re good books!)

I have even worse problems with comic-book creators, who change way more often. My husband and I frequently have variations on this conversation whenever we try to get back into buying comics.

“Ooh, that story sounds interesting, let’s buy that!”

“(husband picks up the book) No, you don’t want to buy this.”

“Why not?”

“Frank Quitely drew this.”


“The guy you say is like Hitler.”

“OH, right, the one who can’t draw people! Okay. Find me one of the guys I like.”

“Do you like Grant Morrison?”

“Who’s he? Is he the one who hates women?”

“Which one who hates women?”

“The one with the Evil Slut Flakes.”

“No, that’s Chuck Austen. Grant Morrison is the one you think can be a bit of a wanker but all right if he’s properly edited.”

“Think he’s properly edited in this one?”

“I’ll risk it. I want to read this.”

“Okay, so who’s the one who doesn’t think I want to buy comics?”

“Joe Quesada. Now go get your Batman so we can go.”

For the record, comparing Frank Quitely to Hitler can get you funny looks. But it’s true! Good at landscapes and architecture, rubbish at people! Although I hear Quitely’s gotten a little better in the last few years.

And it’s not just real people, or their fictional characters. (My spouse is getting used to getting television recaps with such descriptors as ‘you know, the floppy one’ and ‘the pretty one from Friday Night Lights. No, the other pretty one.’) I have trouble with my own characters too. I once showed up at a NaNoWriMo write-in to realize that I’d culled my on-the-go writing file too far and had cut all mention of one character’s name. She was SFP (secondary female protagonist) for nearly two hours before I yelped ‘SOFIA!’ and startled everyone on my side of the table. This, mind you, was a week in, and I’d been writing her name multiple times every day.

I have learned to keep cheat sheets of names on every computer when I’m writing. Especially if I’m inventing gods or suchlike, because they crop up rarely enough that the name won’t get hammered into my brain by repeated typing. But then I always forget to update the sheet and I’m left hunting through Chapters Four to Seven because I know I mentioned him somewhere in here. I once had to call my long-suffering husband and ask him if he remembered what I’d named my fictional kingdom. He did. He’s so awesome. (He also didn’t complain when I went and woke him up just now to ask him who the one who hates women is.)

On the up side, I’ve only called my child by my sister’s name – or my cat’s name – a few times, and I’ve had her for nearly three years, so maybe I’m improving.

Retelling fairy-tales

I love reboots and rewrites of fairy-tales and myths. I read Peter Morwood’s Prince Ivan not long ago, but found it a less appealing retelling than Mercedes Lackey’s ‘Firebird‘. I’m looking forward to seeing Hansel and Gretel, and enjoyed ‘Rise of the Guardians’. I have stacks of books on myths and legends from around the world. I’m currently editing (well, putting off editing, mostly,) my rewrite of The Wizard of Oz. So, you know, I’m keen.

Of course, they tend to be a very mixed bag. Ms Lackey does a lot of them, but they’re not all as good as ‘Firebird‘ – I liked ‘One Good Knight‘ but found ‘Fortune’s Fool‘ and ‘The Gates of Sleep‘ somewhat disappointing. ‘Ella Enchanted‘ was a fun, fluffy movie but so silly that it couldn’t be taken seriously – I haven’t read the book. ‘Daughter of the Forest‘ by Juliet Marillier was wonderfully written, but more than a little depressing (as any retelling of The Seven Swans would have to be, really). ‘The Mermaid’s Madness‘ by Jim C. Hines made me cry – he took the Little Mermaid and actually made her story way more depressing than the original! Very good, though, would recommend.

I often toy with the idea of writing these. It would certainly be fun, and derivative fiction is my strength – on the other hand, I worry that if I just stick to writing varying forms of fan-fiction, I’ll never get anything purely original finished. And I do want to do that – I have so many stories I want to tell. So maybe the rewrites should wait. But ‘Overlander Z’ is the only novel I’ve ever come close to actually finishing. So maybe I should go with what works? I don’t know. It’s a tough one.

Mobile City: Overlander Z‘ was always intended to be followed by other retellings. ‘Wonderland‘ and ‘Nautilus‘ were intended to be the next in the Mobile City series. As for retellings, my mother has an unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I used to read as a kid, which gave me some very interesting nightmares. There is one story that ends, I am so not kidding, with the ‘hero’ proving his gratitude to his Faithful Servant by beheading his own children. Gyah.  Still, there’s a lot of material in there.  And then there’s the Arabian Nights stories, and so many more myths and legends from around the world…

For now, I’m editing Overlander Z and trying my hand at romance. But the retellings are an interest that doesn’t seem to be going away, so… I don’t know. Time will tell. Meanwhile, anyone got any recommendations of other rewrites? I’d love to see them!

Tomorrow, in honour of the movie and my own enthusiasm for the subject, I’ll post my own attempt at a short rewrite of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. It’s creepy.

Reading is compulsory

So I posted yesterday about how writers need to read (and watch, and listen, and basically stuff stories into every facial orifice as often as possible and wow that’s an interesting mental image). And I do read. I read constantly. I have caches of books scattered everywhere- in the bathroom, in my handbag, in the drawer of my bedside table – in case I am caught without reading material for a few minutes at a time when I can’t immediately get up, or don’t want to because my bed is cosy. One of the first things I bought when I found out I was pregnant was an e-reader, because five days in hospital and you’re only allowed to bring one bag? Yeah, not going to work for me.

As it turned out, this was the best purchase I made, because between the fact that I couldn’t get out of bed to get a book for three days thanks to the c-section, and spending my first day in intensive care without even my baby to pass the time with, I would have gone nuts without it. But that’s another story.

I read constantly, but I recently realized that it’s been quite a while since I read anything new. I love to reread, in part because I love dwelling on the eloquent prose of my favourites and revisiting favourite passages, and in part because as previously noted my memory is epically bad. So rereading is actually super fun for me because I know I loved the book but I don’t actually remember half the details, so it’s like having a nearly new book.

It does not, however, help much in the whole ‘growth as a writer’ stakes. I already know what these books have to teach me, so now I’m just rereading for the fun of it. Which is not making me grow. Growing is required – plus, if I want to get published, some passing knowledge of books published in the last three years would probably be a good idea.

So new project for the new year. Read – and review, I think – at least ten new books by writers previously unknown to me. I want to try to read some Australian authors, maybe more steampunk, some classic fantasy and some science-fiction, because I’ve been reading almost no science fiction lately. Does anyone have any recommendations for new books? I would be very grateful! Those available as ebooks are best, since I rarely read paper books these days. Also ebooks tend to be cheaper.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?